Jack Lazor is a longtime organic farmer in the Northeast Kingdom. Best known for making yogurt, Lazor also grows and processes grain. Now he’s written a book – despite recent battles with serious illness.
December 15, 2013
By Sally Pollak
WESTFIELD — On a bookshelf in Jack Lazor’s study is a three-ring binder that holds the thesis he wrote at Tufts University 40 years ago. The title of Lazor’s paper is “Rural Change in Southern New England, 1850-1890: A Case Study of Somers, Conn.”
Lazor, a 62-year-old Westfield farmer, designed his own major at Tufts, the history of agriculture. “It was a way to legitimize my back-to-earth fantasies while I went to a hoity-toity school,” Lazor said.
His back-to-earth fantasies have been dirt-brown real life since 1975, when Lazor and his future wife, Anne, moved to Irasburg to homestead and farm. Within a week they had a cow. Soon, they were making yogurt in a blue and white makeshift double-boiler on their stove, bottling it in glass jars and selling it to neighbors.
These days, the Lazors and their farm crew produce 5,000 to 7,000 quarts of yogurt a week, packaged in blue and white containers (at least the nonfat plain variety) marked Butterworks Farm.
The yogurt is made from their organic Jersey milk at the high, flat Westfield farm the Lazors purchased in 1976. They paid $20,000 for 60 acres, with the intention of growing food to feed themselves and their animals. That’s what they wanted to do.
They bought the farm with money Anne’s parents had set aside for her graduate school. In 1978 the Lazors built a small cape farmhouse, living in a tool shed as they made it.
“We’ve had a lot of fun here,” Lazor said.
A lot goes on at Butterworks Farm, more than yogurt-eating regulars are probably aware of. This includes a writing project, one of greater heft than Lazor’s 40-year-old college thesis. He recently published his first book, “The Organic Grain Grower: Small-Scale, Holistic Grain Production for the Home and Market Producer.”
“There’s nothing like it out there, and it needed to be written,” said Eliot Coleman, a Maine farmer (Four Season Farm) and author who wrote the foreword to Lazor’s book.
The Lazors were among the “bunch of hippies” who started to farm organically several decades ago, when it was said to be impossible or foolish, Coleman said.
“This is the hardest way to earn a living anyone could try,” Coleman said. “This is something you do because you love it. And that’s certainly true of Jack and Anne. They’re unique people, and they’ve created this spectacular farm.”
Rising 65 feet high at Butterworks Farm is a granary made of pine and spruce cut on the farm. Its tower peaks at 1,365 feet, because the farm’s altitude is 1,300 feet. This magnificent structure, built in 1990, houses a kind of labyrinth of agricultural endeavors, grain-related.
There’s an elevator to the top of the tower, and a system that relies on gravity to shoot grains into big bins. This is where Lazor cleans, hulls, processes, packs and stores a variety of grains — including barley, corn, oats, soybeans, spelt, sunflowers and wheat.
“It’s my church,” Lazor said. “It’s sort of been a work in progress. We had to do all this stuff the old-fashioned way before we did it the modern way. I don’t know why, maybe just to say we did. And because of my curiosity about the past.”
Lazor ships grains and seeds to other farmers in New England and beyond. His food is prepared in restaurant kitchens and sold in grocery stores. At Caledonia Spirits, founder Todd Hardie says the quality of his whiskey is derived from Lazor’s corn, which in turn gets its beauty from Lazor’s farming: his love of the land, and the energy and care he devotes to it.
“We’re very grateful for that,” Hardie said.
Phillip Clayton, chef/partner of the Farmhouse Group, says he’s enjoyed cooking with Lazor’s farm products since he started working in Vermont.
“Jack is a pioneer of sustainable Vermont agriculture, and has been instrumental in building the foundation that chefs and farmers in Vermont stand on today,” Clayton wrote in an email. “When you cook with Jack’s food you know that you have ingredients of real provenance. … His food creates a beautiful circle. It is crafted with care and reverence and it nourishes people in the same way that Jack and his farm nourish the land.”
Lazor’s yogurt generates more than $1 million in annual sales.
“It pays the bills,” he said the other day in his dairy barn.
His Jerseys were lying on a thick bed of straw in a huge tarp-covered barn with an open end, which allows the cows to come and go as they please. He calls the barn a free-for-all, a riff on the standard freestall.
Lazor was coming and going himself, showing a visitor around Butterworks Farm. The farm has grown from 60 to about 360 acres, 175 at the home hill in Westfield.
Lazor stopped by the yogurt room, bemoaned out-of-state distributors who throw the food around when it should be handled like eggs. Sixty percent of his yogurt stays in Vermont, and that pleases Lazor: He likes to distribute it himself; he likes to know his customers and to feed friends and neighbors.
“We’re the local yogurt,” he said.
Lazor described a short-lived experiment involving trendy Greek yogurt, in which he used bed sheets to strain the yogurt. “It was like trying to put frosting into a container,” he said.
‘Glad to be here’
The day had started early at Butterworks Farm, as farm days do. The morning’s first enterprise, which began pre-dawn, is new to the farm.
Lazor became ill last summer and requires kidney dialysis. Anne Lazor oversees the process, which takes about four hours, five days a week. They start at 5 a.m., when Lazor sits in a chair in the room where he wrote his book, hooked to high-tech medical machinery.
“It’s interesting,” he said. “I’m at a new place in my life. I’m glad to be here. They were getting ready to bury me last summer.”
It’s an interesting place for a Farmall kind of farmer.
Lazor has typically opted for simpler equipment and small-scale endeavors, and he has an abiding interest in the origins of agricultural practices. His first farm job was at Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, where he dressed in period costume and milked cows into a wooden bucket.
His thinking was informed and focused by a book he read after his freshman year at Tufts, “The Alternative.” It’s about hippies in San Francisco who moved to New Mexico to start agrarian communes.
He knew something about growing food from his childhood near Springfield, Mass., where his father, a chemist who worked for Monsanto, grew vegetables and tended fruit trees.
After college, Lazor moved to Vermont to work on a Barnet dairy farm, working six days a week for $60. He left the farm to return to Sturbridge Village, where he got a job researching local labor history. He and Anne met; she was an anthropology student at the University of Wisconsin with a summer job at the museum.
One day he watched her take a ratchet out of his old tool box and use it to disengage a big barn door. “Man, she knows her stuff,” Lazor thought.
He moved to Madison, Wis., for her senior year of college, and they decided to “do a homestead together,” he said.
While Anne finished college, Lazor spent time in the university library reading about agriculture.
In Midwest grain country, he read books about growing grains and crops. Weekends, he and Anne went to farm auctions to buy old equipment. They met and befriended farmers; Lazor hung out with them to learn what he could.
‘Better than graduate school’
When Anne graduated from Wisconsin, they packed up and moved to Irasburg. They had the Westfield farm in about a year.
“This is much better than graduate school,” Anne Lazor said, referring to the would-be tuition money they used to buy the farm. “I remember my mother always saying, ‘You kids, why do you want to work so hard?’”
It is work the two of them love and are gratified by: Anne’s taking charge of the cows, milking every day for more than 30 years; Lazor interested in field work and grains.
They shared, too, an aesthetic about sustainable farming and running a business. Bigger, Lazor said, is not necessarily better.
“I think we ended up with this anti-corporate viewpoint because of a lot of these books we read,” he said. “‘Food for People Not for Profit’ talked about how much corporate concentration there is in the grain industry, and all these other places. And it planted the seeds of what we were going to do.”
Always, Lazor looked to farmers in Vermont and Quebec whose knowledge and experience he could draw on. He befriended Francis Angier, 90, who was a bomber pilot and POW in World War II. Angier returned from the war and transitioned his Addison County farm from dairying to grain, primarily wheat and barley.
“Jack’s a very intelligent man,” Angier said. “He studied quite a lot and read a lot. He’s well informed, and I couldn’t show him too much.”
They talked about tillage and legumes, getting nitrogen in the soil and weeds out of it, chemical-free.
Lazor now is the repository of information on grain-growing, set down in print and generously shared by other means, said Heather Darby, an agronomist with University of Vermont Extension. He will teach a class in grain production next semester at UVM, a first for Lazor.
Lazor’s influence and innovation in grain production and other areas of organic farming is vast and important, Darby said. It extends beyond Vermont, through New England and across the nation.
“He is known everywhere,” she said.
“The Lazors are wonderful people and real assets to Vermont agriculture,” Darby said. “They’ve really led the way in so many avenues, not just grains but small dairy processing and organic farming.”
In summer 2010, Lazor drove to Amherst, Mass., to lead a workshop at a NOFA conference. In attendance was an editor from Chelsea Green Publishing. She approached Lazor after his talk and asked him to think about writing a book.
Missing from the ag literature was a comprehensive grain production book, Lazor said. He proposed the idea and started to work on the outline.
Lazor wrote the book at about the time he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He chose not to have radiation treatment. Rather, he ate a macrobiotic diet for a year: an interesting undertaking for dairy farmers who now had a diet similar to the cows that had fed them for more than 30 years.
(Lazor said the diet was difficult and no fun to follow, and he would go to the cooler and sneak yogurt.)
Yet a certain clarity of mind came with the dietary regimen, Anne Lazor said. This was useful in writing the book.
Although Lazor was symptom-free on the macrobiotic diet, it did not address the underlying cancer, he said. This, in turn, led to kidney complications he was unaware of until last summer.
Driving his pickup truck with a fertilizer spreader, hauling a big load of fertilizer, Lazor rolled the spreader and wound up in a ditch. Lazor was uninjured, yet he thinks the accident happened because he blacked out.
Throughout the summer he became sicker, getting out of breath walking from his house to the barn, having difficulty keeping his food down.
In late July, Lazor — who had no health insurance — went to the emergency room in Newport, where he was diagnosed with late-stage kidney disease. An ambulance transported him to Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington. He was admitted into the intensive care unit. Dialysis treatment started at the hospital; he’s been doing it at home for nearly two months.
When Lazor moved to the Northeast Kingdom after a year in Wisconsin, he wanted to bring Midwest agriculture — with its mixed farming of raising animals and crops together — back to Vermont with him.
“That’s the beginning of my exploration, of finding this farm,” Lazor said. “We’ve got the best of both here. It’s like Iowa in the Green Mountains. It’s flat and fertile with a long growing season; it drains well. The frost rolls off the hills into the valley below us. And we have this beautiful scenery all around us.”